Flow: Where Science Meets Zen

If you’ve ever played a sport, you’ve probably heard a coach yell, “Get your head in the game!” This is because it is universally understood in the sports world that the fewer extraneous thoughts you have, the better you’ll perform. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi coined the term “Flow” to describe the experience – common to elite athletes and artists – of focusing so completely on one thing that the brain completely stops processing data related to anything else. In this TED talk, Csikszentmihalyi describes Flow as, “An almost automatic, effortless, yet highly focused state of consciousness,” and states that the human brain is capable of processing about 110 bits of information per second. Although that measurement is open to debate, the point is that, when fully focused on a task, the mind literally has no capacity to generate thoughts or data related to anything else. This is why an artist, for example, can paint for hours without realizing that he is hungry, thirsty and tired; his nervous system simply doesn’t have the bandwidth to process any more data.

At this point, neuroscience starts to blend into Zen Buddhism. In “The Zen Doctrine of No-Mind,” Zen master D.T. Suzuki explains that in “Mushin” (“no-mindedness”), “No thoughts, no consciousness, interfere with the functioning of the mind … When we have an experience, for example, of seeing a tree, all that takes place at the time is the perceiving of something.” Interestingly, elite performers describe their Flow experiences in almost Zen terms; a composer recalled that, “You are in an ecstatic state to such a point that you feel as though you almost don’t exist.” A figure skater told a researcher, “It’s like you’re on automatic pilot, so you don’t have any thoughts. You hear the music, but you’re not aware that you’re hearing it.” In other words, without the background noise of internal monologue, it becomes possible to pay full attention to whatever is in front of you. For a Zen monk, it might be a tree; for a football player, it might be the activity on the field; for a fighter, it is the opponent. Ideally, all of us would be able to do this all the time, regardless of the subject. This is, in a nutshell, the Zen ideal: to exist as one with the Universe, so fully engaged with the reality around us that all sense of separation disappears.

A somewhat less self-renouncing sentiment than its pure Zen Buddhist atecedent was a central tenet of Dan Millman’s book and film, “Way Of The Peaceful Warrior.” At one point in Millman’s semi-autobiographical narrative, the hero’s mentor points at his head, and tells him, “Throw out everything you don’t need, up here.” Later, the mentor suddenly pushes the main character off a bridge, in order to give him the experience of having his mind fully (and quickly) cleared. Over time, the hero develops the ability to clear his mind at will, discovering profound athletic and personal benefits.

According to Csikszentmihalyi, it takes more than concentration to achieve Flow. Basically, it requires an activity in which you feel a high level of challenge, and in which you feel that you have both a high level of skill. If, as Csikszentmihalyi states, Flow is the most profound happiness that a human can experience, this means that being good at something is a prerequisite for being blissfully happy. But, it can’t just be anything, it has to be something you care about.

For most of us (muddling along with a high level of skill at jobs we don’t care much about, and a low level of skill at hobbies we wish we were good at), this can be a discouraging proposition – especially when research has shown that it takes about 10 years of consistent practice to be really good at something. However, the promise of flow and a sense of fulfillment is a strong motivator to pick something, focus on it, and start down the road to eventual mastery.

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